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A call to arms: Covid-19 has thrown up new opportunities for social recovery

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The coronavirus pandemic has given rise to networks of innovative thinkers committed to social and environmental sustainability. Architects are well-placed to galvanise others – investors, developers, clients, planning authorities – to get behind this essential obligation to society, says Clare Richards

I regularly receive emails inviting me to design a post-pandemic world from bodies such as the RIBA’s Rethink 2025 competition, in search of ‘ambitious solutions’, and the UN global Build Back Better movement to halt climate change.

Although sincere, such abstract challenges miss the point – imagining a hypothetical world, while in the real one the impact is being felt in every street and home. Suddenly we’ve become aware of the others who share our space and, while reaching out with mutual support and social action, we’ve discovered the other side of this story, in which existing inequalities have been brutally laid bare. Our new, shared local identity is proving a powerful motivator and with this the potential to kick-start a wider social recovery has emerged.

So here, now, I propose a more realistic ‘call to arms’ to all who believe that communities must be inclusive, valued and fit-for-purpose. Let’s grasp this extraordinary opportunity, this new sense of belonging and social innovation – to change how we do things. It’s here that those of us working in the built environment must employ our skills.

But first, a quick question: do we even have the necessary skills to rise to the challenge? Among the ‘competencies’ that the ARB requires us to ‘demonstrate an understanding of’ to qualify as an architect is ‘the architect’s obligation to society.’ I recall the alarm of fellow Part 3s who pointed out that we hadn’t been taught about that. And, with a few laudable exceptions, architecture schools still do not include in their core curriculum the social purpose of the profession. That now looks like a glaring omission (and something ft’work is already working to rectify with the RIBA and others.)

In other ways, we’re ideally suited to this social challenge. With well-honed skills of adaptability, problem-solving and creative imagination, we have the potential to innovate well beyond Nightingale Hospitals and 3D-printed PPE masks (important though these are). In gathering examples of such innovation, ft’work has identified yet another essential skill, that of collaboration. In response to the pandemic people have connected and organised across social groups and an Office for National Statistics survey recently found that they expect and want this to continue. To be successful and sustainable, local involvement must be a given.

Some architecture practices have acted alongside community groups in rapid response to need; while others have led a collective response, drawing in various professionals and sectors. Others still are using the time to plan for better systems for the future.

ZCD Architects, whose research on Child Friendly Cities has influenced national policy, conducted a survey ‘Our streets in lockdown’ (https://www.zcdarchitects.co.uk/mass-observation), in quick response to a dramatic change in use. It has helped adapt an ongoing project with the Museum of London into play-based activities coming out of lockdown, focusing on streets and outdoor spaces. They are also providing support to a broader campaign about the social use of streets.

Soundings, an architect-run specialist in community participation, works with interdisciplinary teams in a mainly face-to-face system of bottom-up and top-down engagement. They quickly saw the limitations of online platforms during lockdown and so are developing an engagement app of their own. Some digital methods, such as virtual ‘village hall’ exhibitions, they consider more a ‘distancing’ than ‘engagement’ tool and a possible excuse not to return to face-to-face communication. The digital element of their own placemaking platform will be interactive and used within the physical process, not as a substitute; and it will mirror all development stages, from an understanding of place through to a completed design.

In parallel with design work, Matter Architecture researches the housing needs of different social groups. Whether working from home or living in a care home, the pandemic has exposed the serious limitations of existing housing models. Using social impact assessments and building on their recently published grant-funded project Rethinking Intergenerational Housing, they’re exploring how design guidance for older people’s housing can be adapted and focused as a benchmark for homes for all ages. Both adaptable and accessible it could support homeworking while also fostering wellbeing through integration and social interaction.

For social innovation to be encouraged and rolled out, we must commit equally to ‘social’ and ‘environmental’ sustainability. Already taking a lead on climate change, architects are well placed to galvanise others – investors, developers, clients, planning authorities – to get behind this. There’s already some evidence to build on: while investigating community-led projects to emerge during lockdown, we’ve seen a crucial difference where there already exists a trusted network. Some Community Development Trusts and Community Interest Companies have hit the ground running, acting as facilitators and a link to local, private and public sector support.

Let’s make the creating and resourcing of such networks the first step in our post-Covid challenge; then let’s give ‘social infrastructure’ a much-needed makeover – with policy backing – as a proper structure for local support and further innovation.

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Readers' comments (2)

  • Steve McAdam

    This is the kind of article that makes you sit up and take notice. Architects in the mix for social change - we don't hear enough about this. I have to express an interest here - I'm a director at Soundings as well as Fluid, but I hope that doesn't disqualify the real pleasure I felt reading such an account, and call to arms. RIBA Presidential candidates - take note!

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  • Roland Karthaus

    Quite agree, but I think we have to look seriously at the makeup of the profession too - change is not only about what architects do but about who architects are and who the profession represents. Likewise our work is mentioned above but I'm also very aware of working within a system that desperately needs to change.

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